Nas and I have something in common: We both miss the 1990s. I miss it because that was the decade when I graduated from high school and went to college. Everything felt so important back then -- especially music. Nas presumably misses it because his music was among the most important of the decade. Illmatic, released in April 1994, was a dispatch from the Queensbridge projects that immediately established Nas as one of the premier rappers of his generation. I'm sure it's because we were biased New Yorkers, but nobody I knew listened to Tupac until he died. Our "Who's No. 1?" debates all centered on Biggie and Nas.
None of which is to suggest that Nas (born Nasir Jones) hasn't enjoyed his share of success in the new millennium. He's released five successful solo albums since 2001; one went double platinum, two went platinum, and the last two hit No. 1. And he's also endured his share of drama -- feuding and then making up with Jay-Z, marrying and then divorcing Kelis (he recently called her "my Courtney Love") and suffering a multicultural backlash when he tried to name his last album after a racial epithet starting with the letter "N."
That's all behind him now, though, if the title of his upcoming solo album is any indication. Nas has already released two very promising singles from Life Is Good, which is due out from Def Jam on July 17, and he performed without incident earlier this month at Hot 97's drama-packed Summer Jam concert. Here are some highlights from The Huffington Post's recent chat with the illustrious rapper.
What can you tell us about the new album?
Man, I wanted to go back into an area in music that really erupted from me. Of course, that’s the '90s era, and I focus on that, but the way I did it was, I made it for today. Some people do it in ways that’s a little too '90s and they expect big results. I did it as a sort of celebration of that sound, and I made it today -- I made it feel like that music could be today too.
If you had to put in a nutshell, what is the '90s sound that you’re going for?
Just all original music -- with samples, but still all original sounds and beats. And with a little touches of drums from back then. The sound of the '90s, to me, is a combination of soul and street -- it's a feeling.
Do you listen to a lot of stuff from that time?
I listen to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. From time to time, I listen to Walking with the Panther by [L.L.] Cool J, M.C. Shan's Down By Law, which is '80s, and some Geto Boys too.
Are you a Beastie Boys fan? Have you been going back into that ever since the sad news about Adam Yauch?
Yes, yes definitely.
To some extent they really did encapsulate the '90s sound, don’t you think?
Oh my God, in a huge way. License to Ill is a classic, man. It’s one of the best hip-hop albums ever made.
What do you think about today's artists? I know you played at Summer Jam and there was the whole controversy with Nicki Minaj refusing to play after a Hot 97 D.J. insulted her. Do you think it was right for her to back out of the concert?
I’ve been there before, I can say that. It’s not an easy thing, you know, we all have ... the things that happen in our careers that are challenging and decisions have to be made last minute really fast, relationships get hurt -- those things happen. And, you know, it’s unfortunate. I wish the music business was a much easier thing, but you know what? Nothing easy is worth anything. So it is what it is. There comes a time when things can work out and everybody can be happy. And that’s what it’s all about in the end -- everybody being happy and working it out.
Do you think Hot 97 pushes a little too hard on getting those beefs going, or is that just part of the hip-hop world or the music business?
Yeah, it’s the hip-hop world, some people go too far ... but it's just the hip-hop world.
I love the video for "Daughters," and I wanted to ask, do you have any advice for Jay-Z and Beyonce trying to keep things real with their new daughter?
Well, anybody with kids coming into the world can definitely listen to this record to prepare. You know, parenting ain’t easy. And I definitely have not been there because, you know, the disputes with my daughter’s mom were really, really the worst thing -- I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. And, you know, the net of me being busy, that combination, just means like, you know, the kid has to suffer. And you know, parenting’s no joke. So that was just my piece of advice or my piece of information about having ... being a father for a couple of years now. And, you know, take from it what you will -- hopefully it’s helpful.
I’ve made a lot of web videos in my days and I've seen a lot of mistakes creep in, but what were your thoughts when you realized that the date [at the beginning of the video] was wrong and showed your birthday and not your daughter's?
I didn’t understand how they could have made such a mistake! I guess whoever was working with the video team was probably such a fan, you know. I don’t know, they put my birthday -- they were thinking about me. The editor was thinking about me.
But your daughter, she was OK? Everything smoothed over?
Ahh man, she cracked up. She cracked up about it. But I think also, we were all so excited and proud of the video -- even the camera crew and everyone was really excited and into it, and I can see them making that mistake based on how much excitement was around the making of the video.
I know your father was a musician. Going beyond the '90s, is there any historical music that you go back to again and again -- a kind of well of inspiration?
People like Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Prince, Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys, Houdini. You know, just the early stages that I draw off of.
And what was it like reuniting with Lauryn Hill at Summer Stage?
It's magic. We did “If I Ruled the World," and it was magic. Every time I work with her, it’s magic. She's just so talented that it gives me chills. I work with her and, like, I’m covered in chills when we’re working. And, you know, nobody does that to me.
I feel like we haven’t heard enough of her in the past years.
She's a warrior. And she just, you know, lives how she lives, records how she records, and does what she feels is good for her. And also she’s so talented. I wouldn’t know how to manage that type of talent coming out of my body. I don’t even know how she does it every day, but God bless her.
There's kind of a fault line in hip-hop between commercial stuff on one side and people who are probably keeping it a little more real. You have fallen into the latter category a bit more. But do you think people like Nicki Minaj and Drake are good for hip-hop? Or are they distracting from some of the core skills that made it what it is?
They’re great for hip-hop. And they're keeping the lights on for hip-hop. In the building of hip-hop, they are one of the main ones keeping the lights on. They are big hip-hop fans just like all of us. They have their own style. They have to develop their own style, and they’re having a great time.